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How Communities Can Organise to Save our Towns

Across Britain, high streets are dying as decades of decline are accelerated by Covid-19 – it's time to organise not only to save town centres but to transform them into genuine public spaces.

Once a vital railway centre for the UK, and officially the gateway to the North of England, my hometown of Crewe has been promised solutions to the ever-growing number of boarded-up shopfront windows, rising levels of poverty and low educational attainment levels for decades. Little to nothing materialises aside from fancy plans and hot air. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Crewe, and towns like it, had been stifled.

We in Crewe are not unique in needing to see action urgently. A drive around the North of England proves that there are many Crewe town centres – demoralised, disengaged and disappointed. A lot of people living in these areas saw Brexit as a vote to change the status quo. It was a rejection of an economic globalisation which has brought little for these communities. But even after voting for Brexit, things are unlikely to change under the current government – the problem runs far deeper, into the very fabric of our society.

It’s not easy to put forward a vision of the future for towns that are dying and workers who are struggling. Unsurprisingly, making suggestions is met with skepticism. Unemployment and precarious work have become the only options for many people, with over a million workers now on zero-hour contracts in the UK grafting long, thankless hours, often in more than one job, yet still finding themselves unable to meet rising living costs. Hope often has evaporated and faith that things can change is met with cynicism. 

Small measures or quick fixes simply will not do. If we are going to provide people with a vision of something better, we need to be bold. What is required is a fundamental alternative to the way our economy works – one that empowers those who have been held back for too long. 

The Dying High Street

We are all aware that the nature of retail is changing. The sector is under pressure from online distributors and enormous companies such as Amazon, who use their monopoly position to undercut rivals and competitors still maintaining a bricks-and-mortar presence.

Many cash-strapped families feel guilty for not supporting the high street in these circumstances, but they are not in the financial position to turn down cheaper goods. The reality of a decade and more of stagnant wages is that many simply do not have the luxury of choice.

Predictably, the blame is pushed onto individuals for the high street disappearing. It’s our free choice, they say, to watch our towns hollowed out. We are told that it is down to our shopping habits, our laziness, and our desire for a bargain.

Nothing to do with the fact the average person had less than £10 disposable income per day even before the pandemic – with one in five having around that per month. Studies suggest the situation will get dramatically worse after Covid.

The death of the high street – and of so many towns in general – is not down to individuals, it’s systemic. Over the last few decades decent, quality jobs have been taken from our towns and relocated to cities with nothing replacing them, as the race for profit ever increases. Capitalism’s structural obsession with endless growth is destroying the very conditions humans need to thrive.

Community Alternatives

The stumbling block is always turning the ideas into a reality, and local government funding cuts have become so dire that councils are selling thousands of public spaces – from libraries and community centres to playgrounds.

In 10 years, central government funding to local authority budgets has been slashed by almost 50%, and limitations have been placed on local government by decades of restrictive legislation. But the idea that nothing can be done until Labour is in power in Westminster must be roundly rejected. 

We can build the leverage to change things now – and we have to, because otherwise our opponents will use the Covid-19 crisis to reshape society in their image. The Labour Party should be running national campaigns focusing on the true impact that Conservative cuts to local government have had and expose them as a main reason communities like Crewe have been held back. This is more essential than ever as Johnson plans to devolve the pandemic crisis to local councils in order to further duck from accountability.

There are already examples of councils in the North West taking action to support the revival of communities. Preston Council has supported worker co-operatives, community land trusts and community development finance institutions. In Salford, the local council has established Dérive – a council-owned development company providing affordable municipal housing. Both of these councils are also experimenting in insourcing and procurement policies that keep jobs and money in the local economy.

The fact remains that human beings are social; however much capitalism may work to isolate and divide us. Our abandoned high streets and town centres provide the perfect location for new hubs of activity.

They can become places not only for shops and cafés – but also for free activities which help the population, especially children and the elderly, reconnect with family and friends. The environment that we live in is vital to the mental health and well-being of the overall community. Residents should feel like the space belongs to them and is in their best interest not in the interest of the market.

A sense of collectivity could be rebuilt from community centres, cafes, pubs and libraries. New businesses offering a variety of food and crafts celebrating diversity could also increase footfall to our ghost towns. We are told that the weather means we can’t do cultural events outside in this country – but strangely, that logic doesn’t apply to places such as Covent Garden. We need to be bold in finding ways to utilise public space to breathe life back into our towns. 

Outdoor theatres and small concerts would without doubt draw a crowd as would family activities like ice rinks, paddling pools and splash parks. Basketball hoops and skate parks can offer areas to meet and socialise for younger people all the time focusing on an approach around fitness and well-being. These initiatives can have a progressive mix of ownership – some provided by council, some run by co-op, some voluntary, but none pursuing a profit-driven model to exploit our communities.

Building a Campaign

It’s time for a concerted effort to revive our towns that brings all parts of our movement together: local activist groups should not only campaign against cuts but organise to develop new socially useful facilities. Where others have abandoned towns, trade unions should not only fight job losses, but support centres of community life financially and politically; and all of us must campaign in a unified way to force local and national government to take the hollowing out of our towns seriously.

Inevitably, fears about crime and vandalism will be raised. In places like Crewe, these themes often stop new initiatives – especially where working-class people are involved. Outdoor events, for example, don’t seem to attract crime in more affluent areas, but any attempt to do them in our towns is met with suspicion. 

This kind of a prejudice and low expectation needs to be tackled. It is a stereotyping that is not only wrong but feeds into the sense of alienation people experience. We need to build relations, trust and pride across communities, and inevitably nice things to do and see will encourage that process.

The effort to revive our towns won’t be an easy one. And there are many fronts to the struggle. An integrated public transport system is essential to any plan, alongside investment in walkways, cycle paths and parking. If people cannot access a town then it is no surprise that they then don’t visit. 

By injecting a positive vision for the future into communities like Crewe, I believe we can generate the enthusiasm and participation we need. This fundamental change will require a movement – but people already know things are going in the wrong direction and have been for a long time.

The Left must focus on the importance of community, not in the sense of charity and volunteering but in the idea that we can invest in collective projects that we all get something from. We want everyone to be given opportunity and access to the fundamentals that lead to a more happy and fulfilled life. The market economy, which is presented as natural, can be replaced by something more sustainable.

We must stop our public spaces and town centres being left in the hands of a tiny minority of people who focus narrowly on profits. What towns like Crewe need is a system geared towards social need. It’s never been easy to generate the social power to challenge the domination of capital over the places we live in. But now is the time to be bold.